The true poem is the daily paper.
– Walt Whitman, 1852
Rather than falling back on unexamined information hierarchies or indefensible definitions of news and entertainment, a more fruitful avenue of inquiry is to consider the larger context within which such definitions emerge and become reified. To help do so, we introduce the notion of media regimes. By a media regime, we mean a historically specific, relatively stable set of institutions, norms, processes, and actors that shape the expectations and practices of media producers and consumers. We choose the word regime to signal the degree to which any stable media system depends on actions by the state – whether in the form of public subsidies, the enforcement of laws regarding ownership, intellectual property rights, rules regarding public access, and so forth – and not simply on the nature of communications technologies and the preferences of individuals expressed through markets or social action. Media regimes, then, are held in place by the authoritative actions of government and so are always political and so always structure the nature of democratic politics. But they are also shaped by the institutionalized practices of private corporations, universities, professional associations, and so forth.
Media regimes are fundamentally affected, but never determined, by new developments in communications technology. In his seminal work, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (2003), Raymond Williams uses the concept of social formation to illustrate how the development of any new medium can never be explained simply by its technological characteristics but rather is always a function of the specific culture within which it is deployed. Drawing on this insight, we argue that the specific contours of any media regime develop in response to larger economic, cultural, and political trends. However, the relationship between particular media regimes and the economic, cultural, political, and technological contexts in which they operate is not purely a one-way interaction – once in place, a media regime determines the gates through which information about culture, politics, and economics passes, thus shaping the discursive environment in which such topics are discussed, understood, and acted on. At most points in time, the structure of this gatekeeping process is largely invisible, with elites and citizens alike at least tacitly accepting the rules by which information is disseminated as natural and unproblematic. Controversy, when it occurs, centers on perceived violations of the rules (e.g., when a journalist is seen as violating the norms of objectivity) rather than on the appropriateness of the rules themselves (e.g., should professional journalists be the primary source for political information?). Periodically, however, economic, cultural, political, and/or technological changes lead to disjunctures between existing media regimes and actual practices (e.g., when new technologies, such as cable or the internet, challenge the dominant role of a particular set of media elites, such as the news divisions of the major broadcast television networks). When these disjunctures between existing rules and actual practice become too great to ignore, normally unexamined assumptions underlying particular media regimes become more visible and more likely to be challenged, thus opening up the possibility of “regime change.” These periods of uncertainty, and reactions to them, have been described by Paul Starr as “constitutive moments.” Such moments result in choices that “come in bursts set off by social and political crises, technological innovation, or other triggering events, and at these pivotal moments the choices may be encoded in law, etched into technologies, or otherwise embedded in the structure of institutions” (Starr , 4). Robert McChesney () defines such moments as “critical junctures” and argues that we are at just such a critical juncture now.